The Positivism Of Benjamin Constant

I made an effort today to visit the house and museum of Benjamin Constant in the Santa Teresa neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro.  I had visited it some years ago and thought it would be a good idea to see it again to gain some perspective.  The site was closed for renovations, unfortunately, so I had to content myself with a few photographs of the surrounding area.  These can be found below.

Constant was an influential figure in the philosophical movement known as positivism.  As a distinct philosophical school, it has few explicit adherents today; but it did exert significant influence, and for this reason it is worth describing in some detail.  He was born in Niteroi in 1836 and received a military education, while always remaining a serious intellectual.  In his era France was acknowledged as the Western world’s primary wellspring of ideas, and he found himself drawn to the philosophy of Auguste Comte (1798—1857), a school that would eventually become known as positivism.  What was this system of thought, and what influence did it have?

It is essentially a rationalist and evolutionist philosophy:  science has the ability to raise man up from his ignorance and help him achieve a higher state of consciousness.  Comte posits three distinct periods of human thought through which man has passed:  the theological stage, the metaphysical stage, and the positivist stage.  In the theological stage, human explanations for universal events rely on the actions of divinities.  Comte sees this stage as little more than a shroud of ignorance, peppered here and there by worthy intellectual achievement.  In the second (metaphysical) stage, divinities are gradually substituted for the workings of abstract laws; yet these laws have not yet been congealed into something resembling modern applied science.  The third stage, the so-called “positivist” stage, is (of course) Comte’s own era, in which modern science and experimentation gradually come to replace the ignorance and obscurantism of the previous stages.

Besides his division of intellectual history into ascending stages, Comte’s other major contribution to the history of thought was to offer a theory of science.  He proposed to divide all scientific disciplines into applied and theoretical categories, and sought to insert them into categories based on how “advanced” or derivative they were in relation to other disciplines.  He also proposed the adoption of a “universal religion” based on positivist principles.

The modern reader will smile at Comte’s unwarranted faith in ascending levels of human development.  The term positivist is an apt one for his philosophy, for he sees history as a positive progression from lower to higher development.  But is this really true?  Comte was an intellectual influence on many of the 19th century progressive social thinkers, such as John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, and Herbert Spencer; but one wonders whether their confidence would have survived the twentieth century’s horrific wars, and the profound uncertainties of quantum physics.  Comte, and by extension Benjamin Constant, were sure that history was on the cusp of an enlightened age, birthed by progressive scientific achievement.  But we here collide with older, perhaps wiser, views of human history.  How do we measure “progress”?  Do we use science?  Moral development?  Or should character be the appropriate standard?

Like so many of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment figures, Comte put far too much faith in reason; he discounted the deeper, perhaps more fundamental needs of the human mind and body, needs that spring from forces and stimuli outside the realm of measurable science.  Humans are not mechanical contrivances; and perhaps the forces and demands of the human psyche, the irrational impulses, play more of a role than many would care to admit.  None of this, of course, is intended as an indictment of Comte and his philosophy.  It exerted tremendous influence and produced much good in the systematization of scientific thought, the eradication of disease and illiteracy, and the banishment of clerical obscurantism in favor of progressive social development.  The abolition of the Brazilian monarchy was due at least in part to his influence; and the motto inscribed on the Brazilian flag “Ordem e Progresso” is a positivist credo.

The reader may wonder where this interest in positivism comes from.  I first learned about this school of thought in my study of the career and expeditions of Brazil’s famed explorer Candido Rondon (1865—1958).  Rondon’s mentor was Benjamin Constant, who himself was an adherent of Comte.  Rondon took positivism seriously; he considered one of his responsibilities was bringing modern civilization to Brazil’s remote native tribes.  Strangely for a military man (Rondon was a general), he subscribed to a form of pacifism when encountering natives:  he thought any kind of violence, even in self-defense, was inappropriate to his mission.  Even when attacked, he forbade his men to defend themselves.

There are stories of Rondon entering villages and begin met with showers of arrows, some of which stuck in his clothing; he would do nothing except turn around and depart, confident that the curiosity of the Indians would thereby be greater stimulated.  And usually he was right.  Rondon later co-commanded the famous “River of Doubt” expedition with Theodore Roosevelt; two more different philosophies could hardly be imagined.  Roosevelt believed in action, action, action; Rondon took an opposing view, believing that a gradualist view of things held out greater prospects of success.

How many among us are willing to stake their lives on their philosophies?  If positivism could have won over a man of such bravery and confirmed achievements, it must have had some merits.


Read more in Lives of the Great Commanders: